By Wren Elhai
With all the questions swirling around the U.S. aid program in Pakistan this week, one very simple one is worth asking. How much economic aid did the U.S. spend in Pakistan last year? Was it, as Pakistani Finance Minister Hafeez Shaikhstated in April, under $300 million? Was it, as the Government Accountability Office cited in a February report, $179.5 million? Was it, as USAID’s mission director in Pakistan Andrew Sisson told the New York Times earlier this week, more than $1 billion?
Of course, what’s most important isn’t how much money the United States is spending—it’s whether the aid is achieving results (that answer too is elusive, a whole different story). But still, this is a number worth getting straight. The lack of clarity on the U.S. aid program translates into a sense among Pakistanis that very little at all has been done, and undermines public faith in the United States’ intentions. (Part of the reason we’ve been calling for more transparency for over a year). By all accounts, the aid program has in fact taken time to get off the ground. But whatever the real spending number is, it can’t possibly be as bad as what the Pakistani public thinks it is.
Now, you wouldn’t think it would be that hard to get one clear number—we’re talking cold, hard data here, figures people are paid to track and check fulltime. So back in February, I contacted USAID to get an answer to this question once and for all. I had no idea about the can of worms I was opening. More than two months, two dozen emails and phone calls, and a face-to-face meeting with the Pakistan budget team later, we finally had the number. USAID’s Pakistan office disbursed $676.46 million in the 2010 fiscal year (data for 2005-2010 in chart).
That number does not include all civilian aid to Pakistan—notably, it’s missing most of the emergency relief for Pakistan’s historic floods. Luckily, that humanitarian relief has been fairly well-documented. On the USAID website, you can find a trove of fact sheets on how much emergency aid has been provided and what it’s done. I added in the numbers from thefinal fact sheet of the 2010 fiscal year, which reports precisely $250,803,854 in USAID spending that’s not included in the Pakistan office number.
Put those together, and my number for total development and humanitarian aid disbursed by USAID in the 2010 fiscal year is…$927,263,854. And I’m sticking to it!***
Trying to nail down this topline number is a fun exercise, but (short of results metrics) the numbers that would be really useful are disaggregated data on what this money has been spent for. With those numbers, places like CGD and our counterparts in Pakistan could begin to tell the really important stories—explaining which sectors are easier to spend money on in Pakistan (and why), providing context on cases where money needs to sit on the books for months or years (as is often the case with major infrastructure projects), and generally filling in gaps in the public’s and Congress’ understanding of what the U.S. aid program in Pakistan is doing. As one example, without more detailed numbers, I have no way of explaining what appears at first blush to be an accumulated backlog of $2.2 billion in undisbursed aid.
We’re talking to USAID about getting disaggregated data. But perhaps the most worrisome thing I learned from two months of trying to get an answer to the disbursement question is this: the biggest reason USAID doesn’t share better information on their spending in Pakistan is because they simplydon’t know. Answering basic questions requires a herculean slog through convoluted databases, twisted in knots from repeated reprogramming and other budget tricks. We were told that a new piece of software is on its way that will change that soon, but as it stands, the United States lacks the ability to answer basic questions about what its signature aid program in Pakistan is doing.
***Unless, of course, someone from the U.S. government wants to share more detailed numbers that show what I’ve missed. I already know my number is missing data on the counternarcotics, law-enforcement, and refugee programs that the State Department (not USAID) manages. I have not even touched the subject of military aid and reimbursements, which easily outweigh civilian aid, and which Pakistan’s government is relying on to fill a broader fiscal deficit.